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The other day I visited a recent acquaintance who happens to be a prostitute. It wasn't the first time I've seen her, and she isn't the first one I've met. But it's not what you think. We had chai then she offered me lunch - tough thick flat bread, raw onions, and spicy dal (lentils) - topped off with a few hearty mouthfuls of local water, accepted out of social decorum, scooped from a mouldy clay basin chalk full of happy-go-lucky opportunistic bacteria unwittingly being sent to a feeding paradise (ie. my insides) later to become my hell.
My host NGO, Gram Vikas Seva Sansthan (GVSS), works to decrease HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) throughout Jodhpur through targeted intervention focused on female sex workers. Through its programs, GVSS aims to increase awareness of prevalent STDs and simple, effective ways to prevent them. GVSS also offers free health services, including child and maternal health care and psychological support; establishes women's self-help groups that promote skills training and microenterprise development; and supports food security though teaching more sustainable agriculture techniques.
I felt no shame walking through the slum's streets, even though I was being stared at by neighboring women, men, and children. I held myself high, eyes forward unlike other men exiting this doorway, and many other similar doorways in this neighborhood. Even though I was carrying the Rs. 50 rupees (~$1 USD) necessary, no money had changed hands.
Instead, I was smiling and expressing thanks (“Ah dhanyavad!! bahut accha!” –“ thank you , very good!”) as Sita stood proudly at her door. She beamed with the pride of a domestic goddess to all onlookers in the busy street, happy to have welcomed a ghora (“white” – foreigner) in her house; an uncommon gesture in this neighborhood. The women outside motioned toward a woven bed/couch on the side of the street saying, “Bheto! Bheto!” (“sit, sit!”) while the children hid behind their mother’s skirts shyly peaking out in checked excitement, electrified faces. Some of the children were naked except for a black thread about the waist (protection from evil) as their mothers dumped water over them, roughly scrubbing their goose-bumped skin.
“Chelo!” (“let’s go”) said Sita, the children having been washed, dried, dressed, and sent to school, which is an exception here. We go to meet my co-worker at another prostitute's house. This prostitute - Pinki - is likely to have a home with similar charm and nonchalance as Sita's, an atypical prostitute lodging. Both of their homes are simple domestic and overflowing with family joy as the centerpiece in their life. Pinki lives with her entire extended family. She shares her profession with a few of them. But that is India, layers and layers of contradiction woven into a complex relationship that somehow, intuitively, naturally, makes sense . . . most of the time.
We are not degenerate co-conspirators in a prostitution ring; we are development workers - something that can be much vaguer. We’re looking for a space to act as a venue for a sewing center. Pinki’s house is an option, plus she has been trained in sewing and is willing to be a teacher, as long as the price is right.
If no one told you, you would, as a first world visitor to an Indian slum, and from a safe distance (physical and mental), bask and take joy in the simplistic rustic beauty of family life lived openly in intense closeness. You would cringe at the pervasive filth, you would swell with pity at the all-encompassing poverty. It’s an Indian slum - we are ready to see nobility here much faster than in other areas as mental compensation, a guilt almost subconscious, but more immediately. We are impelled by a natural aversion. We’ve all heard the stories, seen the movies. And nobility there is, but would it change if you knew these women were all sex workers, prostitutes? And how would you ever know from the scenes played out in the streets. Nothing belies the work these women do to support such loving and close families. Sometimes, it is even hidden from the very families they are supporting.
But this Sasi Colony is apparently regarded in better circles as the city’s most dangerous slum. It is known especially for thieves, brewing illegal alcohol, dangerous ready-to-fight men and women, wild roaming children, the city’s garbage collectors/rag-pickers, and of course, prostitution. All half-truths.
If no one told you, you would, as a first time visitor to a Jodhpur slum, you might cringe at the pervasive filth. You might swell with pity at the all-encompassing poverty. But from all of my experiences throughout my internship in Jodhpur, what stands out the most is that these women, these sex workers, are not different than any other Indian women I’ve met. They are family and home oriented – taking pride in cooking, their home, their children, their parents, and the rest of their families. This is not naivety or a lack of experience. There are darker undercurrents, sometimes even hidden from the very families they are supporting.
This is what has dispelled the anxiety experienced during my first field visits to see these “women of ill-fame”.
This is what has inspired my work in Jodhpur.
Targeting sex workers is paramount to slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS here--but getting to the root of the problem is key: most of the women in Sasi Colony belong to households where the males either provide too little financial support or none at all, leaving the responsibility of income generation disproportionately on the shoulders of these women. As female education is not generally valued amongst lower classes in India, these women lack the education and skills that would enable them to earn money outside the commercial sex industry. Thus, my project is to help create a pilot sewing center, a first for GVSS. Through vocational training, women will sell the traditional clothing they make at the local market, offering an alternative income to the commercial sex world and a profession that their children can pick up as well. With less women involved in sex work, or involved to a lesser degree, we hope that the spread of HIV/AIDS will decrease.
The aim of this project is not to have the women change professions, but to empower them as a community with the opportunity of choice. Hopefully this opportunity leads them to choose a career and lifestyle that is healthier and more stable for them, for their children, and for all of Jodhpur and India. Learning to sew is empowering for the women, not only in a practical sense, but also in providing them a source of self-satisfaction, self-development, pride, and positive behavior change – things which are often missing in these marginalized, discriminated against, underprivileged, and forgotten sections of society.
The chance to experience a part of Indian society not usually accessible to foreigners and locals alike, especially since sex workers are often hidden, secretive, and suspicious due to the discrimination they receive, is something I cannot thank FSD and GVSS for enough. But even more, the chance to influence the lives of just a few women and families is something I will cherish and be thankful for forever. Classes start next week.